Spoilers ahead for season two episode six of Outlander.
This season on Outlander, time-travelling heroine Claire’s (Caitriona Balfe) been very focused on changing history — preventing a would-be revolution, the Jacobite insurrection that culminates in the Battle of Culloden. But since she’s been hanging out in 1740s Paris, you might have wondered whether another revolution, a more famous revolution just a few decades away, would be on her mind. Finally, in a scene this episode that departs from the books, we get a glimmer of this when she tries to wake up French society ladies in what author Diana Gabaldon calls “the social-justice tea party”.
After being bored by the ladies’ chatter and gossip, Claire has had enough. “Doesn’t it distress any of you how this city treats its poor and underprivileged?” she blurts out. “I’m sure you must see the staggering numbers of them, as you travel through the city. Just yesterday, I saw a woman and her child, dead, in the middle of the road. It’s absolutely horrible. Surely we must do something to change the situation!”
For a moment, you think she’s gotten through to them. The ladies look shocked. They agree, “Yes, it’s horrible.” But their solution is for their husbands to petition the king to move those people away to the “less desirable parts of the city” so they won’t have to look at them. In a huff, Claire gets up and leaves, and the women are puzzled as to why she is so “sensitive”.
Was Claire’s outburst too much? Not enough? Should Claire interfere with the course of history here, and if she really wanted her meddling to make a difference, why not talk to the king himself? According to showrunner Ron D Moore, this isn’t Claire’s primary mission, but they wanted to acknowledge that Claire had knowledge of the future and a modern point of view. Translated, her comments mean, “There is massive injustice in this city. That’s why the French Revolution is going to kill all of you people. You should do something about it!”
“It’s tricky,” Moore said. “Whenever you do something like that, you’re automatically putting the audience in a superior point of view, looking down on them because we are much more enlightened. Yet sometimes, it feels like the appropriate thing to do, to say it at least once somewhere in the story.”
Most of the time, we see Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan) in rather lush accommodations, with new friends who represent the upper echelons of the aristocracy. It’s all very beautiful to show on camera, but, as Moore said, quoting Dickens, “It was the best of times, and the worst of times.” The wealth of the upper class is one extreme, as was the poverty of the working and lower classes. “Granted, we see paupers and workmen at the hospital where Claire works, but there was widespread poverty and disease at the time, and it’s reasonable to mention or show it occasionally,” Gabaldon said.
Still, this particular moment came across as “awkward, and not just because of the ladies’ Marie Antoinette–like response," Gabaldon said. Claire might have seemed unfeeling if she didn’t speak up, but it wasn’t the right audience. “She’s apparently been socialising with these women for months,” Gabaldon said. “Clearly she must know by now what vapidly irresponsible people they are.” And of all the examples to give, dead bodies in the street might not be the kind of motivation that would spur anyone to action. Perhaps Claire could have suggested they do volunteer work for a charitable enterprise, as she does? Encouraged them to help others, either with time or money? It might not have made enough of a difference to prevent the revolution, but it could have saved a few folks.
“My philosophy of time travel is that with a large historical event, a battle, a treaty, a succession to the throne or an assassination, these events take place because there are a lot of people pushing in that direction,” Gabaldon explained. “Say you are a baker in Paris during the French Revolution. You probably cannot prevent the king and queen from being beheaded, even if you know it’s coming. What would you do exactly? You’d probably be killed yourself for trying. But on the other hand, your friend the tailor, who you play cards with, you could say, ‘I’ll tell you what, Pierre. Let’s play cards tonight instead of tomorrow,’ and serve him a lot of wine so he misses the riot. You can’t stop the revolution, but you can totally save the tailor.”
Claire’s actions at L’Hôpital des Anges fit that philosophy, but her medical aid is not driven by an attempt to enlighten anyone — it’s just to be useful. If she started spouting off about how everyone else should do what she says to live better lives, you would feel as if Claire thinks herself superior “and all these other people are idiots,” Moore said, when actually “they had validity in their own time and they were people of their time”. The trick is not to look down on them or to impose our modern-day sensibilities upon the 1740s, but to “bring the audience into that world”. One comment to acknowledge the reality of the situation, and “to try to get them to be human beings,” Moore said, should suffice. After all, Claire already has one disaster she’s trying to prevent — and we already know how that turned out.
Watch Outlander on Thursdays at 10:30pm on SBS.
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